To end our features for LGBT History Month, let’s examine, in-depth, the seminal moment that brought the gay civil rights movement to the point where it gathered its most momentum and brought about the changes for the next 43 years: The Stonewall Rebellion.
I recently had the honor of speaking to the Director of the STONEWALL Veterans Association, Williamson Henderson, and he gave me the story of what happened during those five days and nights that encompassed what is now known as the Stonewall Rebellion. He’s quick to point out that it was not a riot. At no time did the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community, turn cars over, break windows, destroy property or attempt to hurt the police or any other people during the span of the rebellion. The point was to just stop the police from arresting anyone and let them know that Greenwich Village had more gay people living there than there were police and they did that quite effectively.
Williamson was also quite adamant about people who have tried to write about Stonewall and never spoke to the veterans who were actually there, or those who tried to get close to the STONEWALL Veterans and then breached their trust, such as celebrity author David Carter, who was invited to a closed-door meeting of the SVA executive committee as long as he had no recording devices.
During the meeting, one member saw Carter had a tape recorder but he claimed it wasn't turned on. A month later at the New York City Gay Pride Parade line-up for the STONEWALL Veterans Association, at Carter's request, the SVA agreed to allow him to join them on the proviso that he not use any recording devices or video cameras and he agreed. One of the members saw a light on through the mesh of his backpack and asked him about it and he claimed it was something else but he was asked to take it out. It turned out to be a tape recorder that was turned on and he was promptly ejected from the parade line-up (with the help of several nearby police officers). He was informed at that time that he would receive no further cooperation from the SVA.That's the reason why none of the membership appear in his book because the SVA filed a restraining order against Carter using any names or information he gathered during his efforts to spy on the inner workings of the STONEWALL Veterans Association.
Several months later he published, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, which Henderson never read but understands from other members that have is in large part a fabrication from cover-to-cover, beginning with using the word “riot” in the title.
LGBT-Today: What were the events leading up to the actual rebellion?
Williamson: First, most people don’t even get the actual date right. It was not June 28th. It was actually the night of June 27th (which would have been a Friday night, as LGBT-Today looked up in the Almanacs), 1969. I was there twice that night with a couple of friends, which included a couple of fag-hags, by the way, who were quite prominent to the Stonewall Club. It was the same day that Judy Garland’s funeral was in Manhattan. The cops since then have admitted that was the stupidest night that they could have made a raid on the Stonewall Club to pick that particular time and of course that had a lot to do with what happened that night. No one was actually looking at their watch to say, “Hey, look! The clock struck 12! It’s now the 28th!” All most of us remember is being there or going there Friday night, the 27th.
Williamson: You can laugh. I’m funny and laughter was one of the few things we had back then. When I give or have given speeches or speak at colleges and universities and thank God I still do, Stephanie, I ask, “Who would have thought back then to look at their watch and write down, ‘it’s now 0001 hours by police time and this happened…” The only ones who considered it the next day was the police and that was probably because it took them that long to book the few people they arrested! I tell people to think of the musical analogy, think of the Beatles, It’s a Hard Day’s Night! It was the same thing—day, evening, night! So the second night, Saturday, was also the night of June 28th, so what are they going to so; call both night’s June 28th? It’s stupid.
LGBT-Today: So who did start the rebellion?
Williamson: I was asked at a big affair in the Bronx this last summer…it was a high school kid who asked the same question. I told him it was a very good question. It was actually a young, white gay guy. There weren’t drag queens running around in the middle of cops with billy-sticks, Stephanie. There weren’t any cops on horseback—or at least I never saw any. It’s just ludicrous to picture the cops with guns drawn and billy-sticks with drag queens running around all over the place…
LGBT-Today: It would have seemed more like a Blake Edwards movie than a historical event!
Williamson: Good analogy! But the legend that’s built up around the story just shows that the LGBT community can’t agree about anything. There were girls there and I say girls because most of them were in their teens. You read historical accounts that gay men and lesbians were at Stonewall and it’s ludicrous. Most of us were just kids like you can read on our website and fag-hags. I never leave them out because they were great with the make-up and they were there because it was safe for them. They didn’t have to worry about the guys attacking them, so it was safe, it was fun, the music was great! That’s why we have the music of The STONEWALL on our site.
LGBT-Today: So exactly what did happen that night?
Williamson: When the cops came into the bar, a bright white light would come on near the entrance and the bartender would unplug the jukebox. Those were the universal signs in all the bars that the cops were there. On a normal night, the bartender or owner would pay the cops off and then they would turn the light off and plug the jukebox back in. That night, the cops weren’t interested in taking money. They just wanted to bust everyone.
LGBT-Today: Of course this is speculation but wasn’t the whole Frank Serpico thing going down back then? He did live in Greenwich Village. I know that from the movie and what I’ve read so maybe the police were running scared, although the Knapp Commission didn’t start until around the time Serpico was shot in February of 1971. It might have been that the cops were just afraid to take the bribe?
Williamson: It’s possible that a lot of things contributed to the rebellion but it’s certainly impossible to say that any one thing was the reason. It was the time of the hippies and protesting. That might have been part of it. It was the night of Judy Garland’s funeral and people got shoved around trying to catch a last glimpse of her casket. It was a hot and miserable night and that definitely doesn’t put people in a good mood. That particular night, the higher-ups in the police had members of the State Police with them or ATF. We didn’t know, but the usual pay-offs that kept them from taking people out of the bar under arrest failed and it just caught everyone by surprise and all hell broke loose.
A retrospective look at the day Judy Garland's funeral happened and what was going on in New York City
LGBT-Today: After that, it seems that all the gay community just turned out to support rebelling against the police action that happened at Stonewall?
Williamson: Oh my, yes! Word of mouth travelled fast but it wasn’t a riot like some people want to describe it! We didn’t vandalize police cars or turn them over or burn stores out. We didn’t pick up billy-sticks and try to hurt the police. It was more like playing tag with the police. When they started chasing one group, another group would do something to distract them and they would chase them instead and then another group. Finally the police just gave up and squared off with the main group of protestors around the area of the Stonewall. All of the community helped each other by exchanging shifts. Eventually, after five days, Mayor John V. Lindsay, wonderful man, told everyone he had a gay brother and called the police off and promised gay equality in New York City. He was a man of his word.
As we look back through the eyes of Williamson Henderson and see this historical event, which unfortunately, has almost no film footage to document it or corroborate the stories of those men, women, young teenage girls and boys, such as Williamson himself was at the time, so that we have the historical records of those days and nights that form the seminal moment in the gay rights struggle that bonded our community together from coast-to-coast.
While it was far from the first volley to be fired in our struggle for equality, it was definitely the loudest, like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Concord Hymn, it shall ever be preserved in the hearts and minds of the LGBT community as the shot heard round the world…
By Stephanie Donald
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